By Marie Bowen
Many Napa County historians concede that George Yount first visited Napa Valley in early 1831 guided by Guy Freeman Fling, the man sometimes referred to as the first American to explore the Napa Valley. They traveled over an old Native American trail from the Sonoma Valley and up Mt. St. Helena where Yount famously said to Fling, “It is here that I would like to live and die.” Yount eventually proved himself right, and Fling also followed through on the oath.
Although the extracts from Yount’s Memoirs as contained in George C. Yount and His Chronicles of the West do not mention Fling, that book does not contain all Yount’s recollections. Assuming Fling actually was Yount’s guide, what is known about Fling’s life before and after 1831? Here’s what I learned, and I am sure there is more to find.
Among the historians and resources mentioning Fling, there are inconsistencies concerning his age and various arrival dates, and no indication of whom or what provided the information given. Based on the only census record of him, Fling was born in Maine in about 1806. Boarding the whaler Courier in Massachusetts about 1825, he ventured as far as the Sandwich Islands (Hawai’i) where he may have jumped ship, according to one source. From there he made his way to Monterey in or possibly earlier than 1831. It is said he guided George Yount from Monterey to Sonoma and then into Napa Valley that same year, returning to Monterey by 1832.
What is known as fact is that Fling was a blacksmith in Monterey for an unknown period of time in the early 1830s. In 1834 he constructed a one-story adobe which may have served as Monterey’s town hall. That building, the Guy Fling House (aka Capitular Hall), with a second story added, still stands at the corner of Pacific and Franklin Streets in Monterey.
It is said that Fling, a hunter and trapper as well as gunsmith and blacksmith, often lived with local Indigenous tribes, adopting their lifestyle. This may be why I have not found him from 1840 to 1846, when C. A. Menefee places him on the U.S.S. Portsmouth, captained by John Berrien Montgomery. On July 9, 1846, Montgomery raised the United States Flag at what is now Portsmouth Square in Yerba Buena (Walter Lum Plaza in Chinatown, San Francisco). On that same day in Sonoma Lieutenant Joseph Revere, following Montgomery’s orders, raised the flag at the Sonoma Barracks which marked the end to the Bear Flag Revolt. The Unindexed Bounty-Land Warrant Applications Index lists Fling as a volunteer private in 1846 with both Revere and Frémont. Fling likely would have been with Revere in Sonoma, and he may have lived there for several years. I have not yet uncovered his connection to Frémont.
I also have not found Fling in any U.S. Federal Census for any California county. The 1852 California State Census records his occupation as a gunsmith in Napa County, and perhaps he stayed somewhere in the county until his death. (The 1852 census does not identify geographic locations of the residents.)
One historian credits William A. Trubody, who arrived in Napa County in 1850, with personally knowing Fling and finding him “very sociable…implying a tippling propensity.” Trubody was born in 1839, but it is entirely possible he knew the much-older Fling, who died about 1870 at the Napa County Infirmary, according to Hubert Howe Bancroft’s Pioneer Index. Wallace Elliott simply says, “He died in 1872.” W. F. Wallace identifies Fling as “Guy Flynn,” with his death occurring in 1872 “in a little old house among the Indians near Napa City.”
Emory Mount, in his manuscript, Napa as I Saw It in 1854, recalls an “Old Flin,” a former sailor who once had been a sought-after gunsmith and creator of bridles and spurs for the local vaqueros, but who had fallen on hard times before his death and subsequent burial at Tulocay Cemetery. Without a doubt, this is Guy Fling.
In his 1873 book Historical and Descriptive Sketch Book of Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino, Menefee provides the most personal information for Fling in a brief biography which ends: “He was at one time an armorer on the United States ship of war Portsmouth (Capt. Montgomery), and when on shore followed the trade of a gunsmith. The kind-hearted and eccentric old man was as well known in this part of the State as any other that could be named. He died in Napa City in 1872.”
Napa County Infirmary was constructed in 1869 (currently the county’s Health and Human Services Agency on Old Sonoma Road) and was considered “an institution of last resort for ailing people who could not afford to mend at home under the care of a personal nurse…many were seriously poor.” Fling may well have fit this profile. Napa County did not register deaths until 1873 and I found no source for Infirmary records.
If it is indeed true he was George Yount’s guide into Napa Valley, it is important to learn as much as we can about him. The trail has not yet grown cold.
Bancroft, Hubert Howe. PIONEER REGISTER AND INDEX, 1542-1848. British Columbia: A. L. Bancroft, 1886
Camp, Charles L., ed. GEORGE C. YOUNT AND HIS CHRONICLES OF THE WEST. Denver: Old West Publishing Company, 1966
Dillon, Richard H. NAPA VALLEY HEYDAY. San Francisco: Book Club of California, 2004
Elliott, Wallace and Clarence Smith. ILLUSTRATIONS OF NAPA COUNTY, WITH HISTORICAL SKETCH. Oakland: Smith & Elliott, 1878
Hanrahan, Virginia. “Napa County History, 1823-1948.” Napa: Napa Chamber of Commerce,
Hill, Kathleen Thompson and Gerald Hill. NAPA VALLEY: LAND OF GOLDEN VINES. Hill Guides Series, 2005
Menefee, C. A. HISTORICAL AND DESCRIPTIVE SKETCH BOOK OF NAPA, SONOMA, LAKE, AND MENDOCINO. Napa, Reporter Publishing House, 1873
O’Donnell, Mayo Hayes. MONTEREY’S ADOBE HERITAGE. Monterey: Monterey Savings and Loan, 1965
F. Wallace, ed. HISTORY OF NAPA COUNTY, COMPRISING AN ACCOUNT…. Enquirer Print, 1901
Weber, Lin. “Getting sick was risky in old St. Helena.” St. Helena Star, January 25, 2007